The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

23. A Change of Tactics

WE pushed off without a word, and paddled out of sight of the beach. A voice was approaching, hailing us. ‘Hail back,’ whispered Davies; ‘pretend we’re a galliot.’

‘Ho-a,’ I shouted. ‘where am I?’

‘Off Memmert,’ came back. ‘Where are you bound?’

‘Delfzyl,’ whispered Davies.

‘Delf-zyl,’ I bawled.

A sentence ending with ‘anchor’ was returned.

‘The flood’s tearing east,’ whispered Davies; ‘sit still.’

We heard no more, and, after a few minutes’ drifting ‘What luck?’ said Davies.

‘One or two clues, and an invitation to supper.’

The clues I left till later; the invitation was the thing, and I explained its urgency.

‘How will they get back?’ said Davies; ‘if the fog lasts the steamer’s sure to be late.’

‘We can count for nothing,’ I answered. ‘There was some little steamboat off the depot, and the fog may lift. Which is our quickest way?’

‘At this tide, a bee-line to Norderney by compass; we shall have water over all the banks.’

He had all his preparations made, the lamp lit in advance, the compass in position, and we started at once; he at the bow-oar, where he had better control over the boat’s nose; lamp and compass on the floor between us. Twilight thickened into darkness — a choking, pasty darkness — and still we sped unfalteringly over that trackless waste, sitting and swinging in our little pool of stifled orange light. To drown fatigue and suspense I conned over my clues, and tried to carve into my memory every fugitive word I had overheard.

‘What are there seven of round here?’ I called back to Davies once (thinking of A to G). ‘Sorry,’ I added, for no answer came.

‘I see a star,’ was my next word, after a long interval. ‘Now it’s gone. There it is again! Right aft!’

‘That’s Borkum light,’ said Davies, presently; ‘the fog’s lifting.’ A keen wind from the west struck our faces, and as swiftly as it had come the fog rolled away from us, in one mighty mass, stripping clean and pure the starry dome of heaven, still bright with the western after-glow, and beginning to redden in the east to the rising moon. Norderney light was flashing ahead, and Davies could take his tired eyes from the pool of light.

‘Damn!’ was all he uttered in the way of gratitude for this mercy, and I felt very much the same; for in a fog Davies in a dinghy was a match for a steamer; in a clear he lost his handicap.

It was a quarter to seven. ‘An hour’ll do it, if we buck up,’ he pronounced, after taking a rough bearing with the two lights. He pointed out a star to me, which we were to keep exactly astern, and again I applied to their labour my aching back and smarting palms.

‘What did you say about seven of something?’ said Davies.

‘What are there seven of hereabouts?’

‘Islands, of course,’ said Davies. ‘Is that the clue?’

‘Maybe.’

Then followed the most singular of all our confabulations. Two memories are better than one, and the sooner I carved the cipher into his memory as well as mine the better record we should have. So, with rigid economy of breath, I snapped out all my story, and answered his breathless questions. It saved me from being mesmerized by the star, and both of us from the consciousness of over-fatigue.

‘Spying at Chatham, the blackguard?’ he hissed.

‘What do you make of it?’ I asked.

‘Nothing about battleships, mines, forts?’ he said.

‘No.’

‘Nothing about the Ems, Emden, Wilhelmshaven?’

‘No.’

‘Nothing about transports?’

‘No.’

‘I believe — I was right — after all — something to do — with the channels — behind islands.’

And so that outworn creed took a new lease of life; though for my part the words that clashed with it were those that had sunk the deepest.

‘Esens,’ I protested; ‘that town behind Bensersiel.’

‘Wassertiefe, Lotsen, Schleppboote,’ spluttered Davies.

‘Kilometre — Eisenbahn,’ from me, and so on.

I should earn the just execration of the reader if I continued to report such a dialogue. Suffice to say that we realized very soon that the substance of the plot was still a riddle. On the other hand, there was fresh scent, abundance of it; and the question was already taking shape — were we to follow it up or revert to last night’s decision and strike with what weapons we had? It was a pressing question, too, the last of many — was there to be no end to the emergencies of this crowded day? — pressing for reasons I could not define, while convinced that we must be ready with an answer by supper-time to-night.

Meantime, we were nearing Norderney; the See–Gat was crossed, and with the last of the flood tide fair beneath us, and the red light on the west pier burning ahead, we began insensibly to relax our efforts. But I dared not rest, for I was at that point of exhaustion when mechanical movement was my only hope.

‘Light astern,’ I said, thickly. ‘Two — white and red.’

‘Steamer,’ said Davies; ‘going south though.’

‘Three now.’

A neat triangle of gems — topaz, ruby, and emerald — hung steady behind us.

‘Turned east,’ said Davies. ‘Buck up — steamer from Juist. No, by Jove! too small. What is it?’

On we laboured, while the gems waxed in brilliancy as the steamer overhauled us.

‘Easy,’ said Davies, ‘I seem to know those lights — the Blitz’s launch — don’t let’s be caught rowing like madmen in a muck sweat. Paddle inshore a bit.’ He was right, and, as in a dream, I saw hurrying and palpitating up the same little pinnace that had towed us out of Bensersiel.

‘We’re done for now,’ I remember thinking, for the guilt of the runaway was strong in me; and an old remark of von Brüning’s about ‘police’ was in my ears. But she was level with and past us before I could sink far into despair.

‘Three of them behind the hood,’ said Davies: ‘what are we to do?’

‘Follow,’ I answered, and essayed a feeble stroke, but the blade scuttered over the surface.

‘Let’s waif about for a bit,’ said Davies. ‘We’re late anyhow. If they go to the yacht they’ll think we’re ashore.’

‘Our shore clothes — lying about.’

‘Are you up to talking?’

‘No; but we must. The least suspicion’ll do for us now.’

‘Give me your scull, old chap, and put on your coat.’

He extinguished the lantern, lit a pipe, and then rowed slowly on, while I sat on a slack heap in the stern and devoted my last resources of will to the emancipation of the spirit from the tired flesh.

In ten minutes or so we were rounding the pier, and there was the yacht’s top-mast against the sky. I saw, too, that the launch was alongside of her, and told Davies so. Then I lit a cigarette, and made a lamentable effort to whistle. Davies followed suit, and emitted a strange melody which I took to be ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ but he has not the slightest ear for music.

‘Why, they’re on board, I believe,’ said I; ‘the cabin’s lighted. Ahoy there!’ I shouted as we came up. ‘Who’s that?’

‘Good evening, sir,’ said a sailor, who was fending off the yacht with a boat-hook. ‘It’s Commander von Brüning’s launch. I think the gentlemen want to see you.’

Before we could answer, an exclamation of: ‘Why, here they are!’ came from the deck of the Dulcibella, and the dim form of von Brüning him self emerged from the companion-way. There was something of a scuffle down below, which the commander nearly succeeded in drowning by the breeziness of his greeting. Meanwhile, the ladder creaked under fresh weight, and Dollmann appeared.

‘Is that you, Herr Davies?’ he said.

‘Hullo! Herr Dollmann,’ said Davies; ‘how are you?’

I must explain that we had floated up between the yacht and the launch, whose sailors had passed her a little aside in order to give us room. Her starboard side-light was just behind and above us, pouring its green rays obliquely over the deck of the Dulcibella. while we and the dinghy were in deep shadow between. The most studied calculation could not have secured us more favourable conditions for a moment which I had always dreaded — the meeting of Davies and Dollmann. The former, having shortened his sculls, just sat where he was, half turned towards the yacht and looking up at his enemy. No lineament of his own face could have been visible to the latter, while those pitiless green rays — you know their ravaging effect on the human physiognomy — struck full on Dollmann’s face. It was my first fair view of it at close quarters, and, secure in my background of gloom, I feasted with a luxury of superstitious abhorrence on the livid smiling mask that for a few moments stooped peering down towards Davies. One of the caprices of the crude light was to obliterate, or at any rate so penetrate, beard and moustache, as to reveal in outline lips and chin, the features in which defects of character are most surely betrayed, especially when your victim smiles. Accuse me, if you will, of stooping to melodramatic embroidery; object that my own prejudiced fancy contributed to the result; but I can, nevertheless, never efface the impression of malignant perfidy amid base passion, exaggerated to caricature, that I received in those few instants. Another caprice of the light was to identify the man with the portrait of him when younger and clean-shaven, in the frontispiece of his own book; and another still, the most repulsively whimsical of all, was to call forth a strong resemblance to the sweet young girl who had been with us yesterday.

Enough! I shall never offend again in this way. In reality I am much more inclined to laugh than shudder over this meeting; for meanwhile the third of our self-invited guests had with stertorous puffing risen to the stage, for all the world like a demon out of a trap-door, specially when he entered the zone of that unearthly light. And there they stood in a row, like delinquents at judgement, while we, the true culprits, had only passively to accept explanations. Of course these were plausible enough. Dollmann having seen the yacht in port that morning had called on his return from Memmert to ask us to supper. Finding no one aboard, and concluding we were ashore, he had meant to leave a note for Davies in the cabin. His friend, Herr Böhme, ’the distinguished engineer’, was anxious to see over the little vessel that had come so far, and he knew that Davies would not mind the intrusion. Not at all, said Davies; would not they stop and have drinks? No, but would we come to supper at Dollmann’s villa? With pleasure, said Davies, but we had to change first. Up to this point we had been masters of the situation; but here von Brüning, who alone of the three appeared to be entirely at his ease, made the retour offensif.

‘Where have you been?’ he asked.

‘Oh, rowing about since the fog cleared,’ said Davies.

I suppose he thought that evasion would pass muster, but as he spoke, I noticed to my horror that a stray beam of light was playing on the bunch of white cotton-waste that adorned one of the rowlocks: for we had forgotten to remove these tell-tale appendages. So I added: ‘After ducks again’; and, lifting one of the guns, let the light flash on its barrel. To my own ears my voice sounded husky and distant.

‘Always ducks,’ laughed von Brüning. ‘No luck, I suppose?’

‘No,’ said Davies; ‘but it ought to be a good time after sunset —’

‘What, with a rising tide and the banks covered?’

‘We saw some,’ said Davies, sullenly.

‘I tell you what, my zealous young sportsmen, you’re rash to leave your boat at anchor here after dark without a light. I came aboard to find your lamp and set it.’

‘Oh, thanks,’ said Davies; ‘we took it with us.’

‘To see to shoot by?’

We laughed uncomfortably, and Davies compassed a wonderful German phrase to the effect that ‘it might come in useful’. Happily the matter went no farther, for the position was a strained one at the best, and would not bear lengthening. The launch went alongside, and the invaders evacuated British soil, looking, for all von Brüning’s flippant nonchalance, a rather crestfallen party. So much so, that, acute as was my anxiety, I took courage to whisper to Davies, while the transhipment of Herr Böhme was proceeding: ‘Ask Dollmann to stay while we dress.’

‘Why?’ he whispered.

‘Go on.’

‘I say, Herr Dollmann,’ said Davies, ‘won’t you stay on board with us while we dress? There’s a lot to tell you, and — and we can follow on with you when we’re ready.’

Dollmann had not yet stepped into the launch. ‘With pleasure,’ he said; but there followed an ominous silence, broken by von Brüning.

‘Oh, come along, Dollmann, and let them alone,’ he said brusquely. ‘You’ll be horribly in the way down there, and we shall never get any supper if you keep them yarning.’

‘And it’s now a quarter-past eight o’clock,’ grumbled Herr Böhme from his corner behind the hood. Dollmann submitted, and excused himself, and the launch steamed away.

‘I think I twig,’ said Davies, as he helped, almost hoisted, me aboard. ‘Rather risky though — eh?’

‘I knew they’d object — only wanted to make sure.’

The cabin was just as we had left it, our shore clothes lying in disorder on the bunks, a locker or two half open.

‘Well, I wonder what they did down here,’ said Davies.

For my part I went straight to the bookshelf.

‘Does anything strike you about this?’ I asked, kneeling on the sofa.

‘Logbook’s shifted,’ said Davies. ‘I’ll swear it was at the end before.’

‘That doesn’t matter. Anything else?’

‘By Jove! — where’s Dollmann’s book?’

‘It’s here all right, but not where it should be.’ I had been reading it, you remember, overnight, and in the morning had replaced it in full view among the other books. I now found it behind them, in a wrenched attitude, which showed that someone who had no time to spare had pushed it roughly inwards.

‘What do you make of that?’ said Davies.

He produced long drinks, and we allowed ourselves ten minutes of absolute rest, stretched at full length on the sofas.

‘They don’t trust Dollmann,’ I said. ‘I spotted that at Memmert even.’

‘How?’

‘First, when they were talking about you and me. He was on his defence, and in a deuce of a funk, too. Böhme was pressing him hard. Again, at the end, when he left the room followed by Grimm, who I’m certain was sent to watch him. It was while he was away that the other two arranged that rendezvous for the night of the 25th. And again just now, when you asked him to stay. I believe it’s working out as I thought it would. Von Brüning, and through him Böhme (who is the ‘engineer from Bremen’), know the story of that short cut and suspect that it was an attempt on your life. Dollmann daren’t confess to that, because, morality apart, it could only have been prompted by extreme necessity — that is, by the knowledge that you were really dangerous, and not merely an inquisitive stranger. Now we know his motive; but they don’t yet. The position of that book proves it.’

‘He shoved it in?’

‘To prevent them seeing it. There’s no earthly reason why they should have hidden it.’

‘Then we’re getting on,’ said Davies. ‘That shows they know his real name, or why should he shove the book in? But they don’t know he wrote a book, and that I have a copy.’

‘At any rate he thinks they don’t; we can’t say more than that.’

‘And what does he think about me — and you?’

‘That’s the point. Ten to one he’s in tortures of doubt, and would give a fortune to have five minutes’ talk alone with you to see how the land lies and get your version of the short cut incident. But they won’t let him. They want to watch him in our company and us in his; you see it’s an interesting reunion for you and him.’

‘Well, let’s get into these beastly clothes for it,’ groaned Davis. ‘I shall have a plunge overboard.’

Something drastic was required, and I followed his example, curious as the hour was for bathing.

‘I believe I know what happened just now,’ said I, as we plied rough towels in the warmth below. ‘They steamed up and found nobody on board. “I’ll leave a note,” says Dollmann. “No independent communications,” say they (or think they), “we’ll come too, and take the chance of inspecting this hornets’ nest.” Down they go, and Dollmann, who knows what to look for first, sees that damning bit of evidence staring him in the face. They look casually at the shelf among other things — examine the logbook, say — and he manages to push his own book out of sight. But he couldn’t replace it when the interruption came. The action would have attracted attention then, and Böhme made him leave the cabin in advance, you know.’

‘This is all very well,’ said Davies, pausing in his toilet, ‘but do they guess how we’ve spent the day? By Jove, Carruthers, that chart with the square cut out; there it is on the rack!’

‘We must chance it, and bluff for all we’re worth,’ I said. The fact was that Davies could not be brought to realize that he had done anything very remarkable that day; yet those fourteen sinuous miles traversed blindfold, to say nothing of the return journey and my own exploits, made up an achievement audacious and improbable enough to out-distance suspicion. Nevertheless, von Brüning’s banter had been disquieting, and if an inkling of our expedition had crossed his mind or theirs, there were ways of testing us which it would require all our effrontery to defeat.

‘What are you looking for?’ said Davies. I was at the collar and stud stage, but had broken off to study the time-table which we had bought that morning.

‘Somebody insists on coming by the night train to somewhere, on the 25th,’ I reminded him. ‘Böhme, von Brüning, and Grimm are to meet the Somebody.’

‘Where?’

‘At a railway station! I don’t know where. They seemed to take it for granted. But it must be somewhere on the sea, because Böhme said, “the tide serves.”’

‘It may be anywhere from Emden to Hamburg.’ [See Map B]

‘Ho, there’s a limit; it’s probably somewhere near. Grimm was to come, and he’s at Memmert.’

‘Here’s the map . . . Emden and Norddeich are the only coast stations till you get to Wilhelmshaven — no, to Carolinensiel; but those are a long way east.’

‘And Emden’s a long way south. Say Norddeich then; but according to this there’s no train there after 6.15 p.m.; that’s hardly “night”. When’s high tide on the 25th?’

‘Let’s see — 8.30 here to-night — Norddeich’ll be the same. Somewhere between 10.30 and 11 on the 25th.’

‘There’s a train at Emden at 9.22 from Leer and the south, and one at 10.50 from the north.’

‘Are you counting on another fog?’ said Davies, mockingly.

‘No; but I want to know what our plans are.’

‘Can’t we wait till this cursed inspection’s over?’

‘No, we can’t; we should come to grief.’ This was no barren truism, for I was ready with a plan of my own, though reluctant to broach it to Davies.

Meanwhile, ready or not, we had to start. The cabin we left as it was, changing nothing and hiding nothing; the safest course to take, we thought, in spite of the risk of further search. But, as usual, I transferred my diary to my breast-pocket, and made sure that the two official letters from England were safe in a compartment of it.

‘What do you propose?’ I asked, when we were in the dinghy again.

‘It’s a case of “as you were”,’ said Davies. ‘To-day’s trip was a chance we shall never get again. We must go back to last night’s decision — tell them that we’re going to stay on here for a bit. Shooting, I suppose we shall have to say.’

‘And courting?’ I suggested.

‘Well, they know all about that. And then we must watch for a chance of tackling Dollmann privately. Not to-night, because we want time to consider those clues of yours.’

‘“Consider”?’ I said: ‘that’s putting it mildly.’

We were at the ladder, and what a languid stiffness oppressed me I did not know till I touched its freezing rungs, each one of which seared my sore palms like red-hot iron.

The overdue steamer was just arriving as we set foot on the quay. ‘And yet, by Jove! why not to-night?’ pursued Davies, beginning to stride up the pier at a pace I could not imitate.

‘Steady on,’ I protested; ‘and, look here, I disagree altogether. I believe today has doubled our chances, but unless we alter our tactics it has doubled our risks. We’ve involved ourselves in too tangled a web. I don’t like this inspection, and I fear that foxy old Böhme who prompted it. The mere fact of their inviting us shows that we stand badly; for it runs in the teeth of Brüning’s warning at Bensersiel, and smells uncommonly like arrest. There’s a rift between Dollmann and the others, but it’s a ticklish matter to drive our wedge in; as to to-night, hopeless; they’re on the watch, and won’t give us a chance. And after all, do we know enough? We don’t know why he fled from England and turned German. It may have been an extraditable crime, but it may not. Supposing he defies us? There’s the girl, you see — she ties our hands, and if he once gets wind of that, and trades on our weakness, the game’s up.’

‘What are you driving at?’

‘We want to detach him from Germany, but he’ll probably go to any lengths rather than abandon his position here. His attempt on you is the measure of his interest in it. Now, is today to be wasted?’ We were passing through the public gardens, and I dropped on to a seat for a moment’s rest, crackling dead leaves under me. Davies remained standing, and pecked at the gravel with his toe.

‘We have got two valuable clues,’ I went on; ‘that rendezvous on the 25th is one, and the name Esens is the other. We may consider them to eternity; I vote we act on them.’

‘How?’ said Davies. ‘We’re under a searchlight here; and if we’re caught —’

‘Your plan — ugh! — it’s as risky as mine, and more so,’ I replied, rising with a jerk, for a spasm of cramp took me. ‘We must separate,’ I added, as we walked on. ‘We want, at one stroke, to prove to them that we’re harmless, and to get a fresh start. I go back to London.’

‘To London!’ said Davies. We were passing under an arc lamp, and, for the dismay his face showed, I might have said Kamchatka.

‘Well, after all, it’s where I ought to be at this moment,’ I observed.

‘Yes, I forgot. And me?’

‘You can’t get on without me, so you lay up the yacht here — taking your time.’

‘While you?’

‘After making inquiries about Dollmann’s past I double back as somebody else, and follow up the clues.’

‘You’ll have to be quick,’ said Davies, abstractedly.

‘I can just do it in time for the 25th.’

‘When you say “making inquiries”,’ he continued, looking straight before him, ‘I hope you don’t mean setting other people on his track?’

‘He’s fair game!’ I could not help saying; for there were moments when I chafed under this scrupulous fidelity to our self-denying ordinance.

‘He’s our game, or nobody’s,’ said Davies, sharply.

‘Oh, I’ll keep the secret,’ I rejoined.

‘Let’s stick together,’ he broke out. ‘I shall make a muck of it without you. And how are we to communicate — meet?’

‘Somehow — that can wait. I know it’s a leap in the dark, but there’s safety in darkness.’

‘Carruthers! what are we talking about? If they have the ghost of a notion where we have been today, you give us away by packing off to London. They’ll think we know their secret and are clearing out to make use of it. That means arrest, if you like!’

‘Pessimist! Haven’t I written proof of good faith in my pocket — official letters of recall, received today? It’s one deception the less, you see; for those letters may have been opened; skilfully done it’s impossible to detect. When in doubt, tell the truth!’

‘It’s a rum thing how often it pays in this spying business,’ said Davies, thoughtfully.

We had been tramping through deserted streets under the glare of electricity, I with my leaden shuffle, he with the purposeful forward stoop and swinging arms that always marked his gait ashore.

‘Well, what’s it to be?’ I said. ‘Here’s the Schwannallée.’

‘I don’t like it,’ said he; ‘but I trust your judgement.’

We turned slowly down, running over a few last points where prior agreement was essential. As we stood at the very gate of the villa: ‘Don’t commit yourself to dates,’ I said; ‘say nothing that will prevent you from being here at least a week hence with the yacht still afloat.’ And my final word, as we waited at the door for the bell to be answered, was: ‘Don’t mind what I say. If things look queer we may have to lighten the ship.’

‘Lighten?’ whispered Davies; ‘oh, I hope I shan’t bosh it.’

‘I hope I shan’t get cramp,’ I muttered between my teeth.

It will be remembered that Davies had never been to the villa before.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/childers/erskine/riddle/chapter23.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30